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Project titleEarly detection of neurocognitive giftedness in children
Project LeadArsalidou Marie
AffiliationNational Research University Higher School of Economics,
|Implementation period||2017 - 2019||extension for 2020 - 2021|
PROJECT EXTENSION CARD
Research area 08 - HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES, 08-555 - Developmental psychology, pedagogical psychology, correctional psychology, psychology of education
Keywordsmental-attentional capacity, giftedness, children, cognitive abilities, intelligence, cognitive development, ultrasonography, eye-tracking, fMRI, neuroimaging
Objective: Cognitive abilities improve gradually over childhood and adolescence. A small percentage of children (~5%; Mcclain & Pfeiffer, 2012) however, show exceptional cognitive abilities. These children are often referred to as cognitively gifted. Our project focuses on early detection of cognitive giftedness in children by way of mental-attentional capacity, ultrasonography, eye-tracking and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Background: Detection of cognitively gifted children abroad mainly relies on different types of intelligence tests that qualify children for advanced programs of study. In Russia, in addition to intelligence tests, parent and teacher recommendations, cognitively gifted students enter schools with advanced curriculum if they score high on domain-specific Olympiads (e.g., math, physics) usually after grade 7 at about age 13 (Grigorenko & Clinkenbeard, 1994; Karp, 2010); although some start at grade 2 at 7-8 years. Another recent method, based on the Olympiad ideal, is the sochisirius.ru program initiated by the Russian President, which allows about 600 students (10-17 years) to enter a monthly program in efforts of early detection and professional support of gifted children. Although each selection process has its strengths there are critical shortcomings related to each one. Specifically, intelligence tests mainly rely on culturally biased formal knowledge gained through schooling (e.g., vocabulary, accumulation of facts; Mcclain & Pfeiffer, 2012); teacher and parental evaluations of a student’s performance are susceptible to unconscious biases teachers and parents may have (Bandura, 1993); thus, these ratings are not truly objective; olympiad exams are generally taken by students later in adolescents, thus do not detect children early and although the special Olympiad program is a great initiative it serves only a limited number of students. According to the Russian Ministry of Education, Moscow alone has approximately 825,000 school-aged children. If 5% (Mcclain & Pfeiffer, 2012) of these children are gifted then there should be 41,250 gifted children only in Moscow. Can we identify advanced cognitive competence in children early in development using objective methods? Early detection of giftedness in children is critical for investing in their learning potential. A culture fair, objective method for assessing cognitive abilities is with parametric measures of mental-attentional capacity (Arsalidou et al., 2010; Arsalidou & Im-Bolter, 2016). Mental-attention is the maturational component of working memory, our ability to hold and manipulate information in mind. Constructivist developmental theory and empirical findings suggest that during typical development mental-attentional capacity increases by one unit every other year, after the age of three, until it reaches seven units at 15-16 years; seven is also the limit for adults (Pascual-Leone, 1970; Arsalidou, Pascual-Leone, Johnson, Kotova, under review). Research shows that children identified as gifted perform at least one unit higher on classic paper and pen measures of mental-attentional capacity compared to their same-age peers (Johnson, Im-Bolter, Pascual-Leone, 2003). Theoretically, this means that children who are gifted perform similarly to children who are one to two years older than them. Our main objective is early identification (age 7-10) of cognitively gifted children. To better understand the neurocognitive profile of cognitively gifted children we will use ultrasonography, eye tracking, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Ultrasonography data from our group show significant differences in cerebrovascular hemodynamics of adolescents with average and low cognitive abilities (Khalezov & Khalezov, 2015; Khalezov & Arsalidou, 2016). Eye tracking will be used to better understand problem-solving strategies cognitively gifted children use, because eye-movements are good indicators of where attention is focused (Graupner et al., 2011). Currently, there is no eye tracking study to date with gifted children. Similarly, there are a limited number of fMRI studies on gifted development, which mainly focus on adolescents (aged 13-18 years) with high math abilities (e.g., O’Boyle et al., 2005; Hoppe et al., 2012). Because of lack of proper parametric measures in cognitive developmental neuroscience (Kotsoni et al., 2006), no study to date has used fMRI to study young gifted children ages 9-10 years. This project is organized in three main studies (A) Screening Study – Identification of cognitively gifted children using mental-attentional capacity measures, (B) Profiling study – Creating a neurocognitive profile of cognitively gifted children versus controls using measures of executive function, motivation and strategy use, and (C) fMRI Study - Identify brain responses of cognitively gifted children versus control children. Method: We will test children attending schools with regular and advance curriculum in Moscow, and will identify the children who perform two stages above their same-age peers. We will focus on children in early grades aged 7-10 years (N = ~2000), however, for a developmental sample we will also test 10 to 16 year-olds. All children will be tested with mental-attentional capacity measures and will undergo a short brain ultrasonography exam. Children (7-10 years) who score two stages above their same age peers on two of the three computerized mental-attentional capacity test will be classified as cognitively gifted; we expect that 5-10% of our total sample (N = ~200) will pass this giftedness criterion. Cognitively gifted children and a control group who did not perform above average will be tested further using a battery of tests on motivation, executive function, intelligence and strategy use. A subset of these children (N = 20 per group) will also be invited to participate in an fMRI study to identify brain responses of cognitively gifted children versus same-age peers on mental-attentional capacity. Novelty: This project has a series of studies that have several innovative aspects. It is the first project worldwide that will combine ultrasonography, eye-tracking, fMRI and mental-attentional capacity measures in school-aged children. It will also be the first fMRI study to examine brain responses of cognitively gifted children on parametric measures mental-attentional capacity. Lastly, this will be the first study to examine the relation of cerebrovascular hemodynamics recorded with ultrasonography and cognitive abilities in a very large sample of typically developing children. We believe that results of this work will have significant impact practically and theoretically in the early detection of cognitive giftedness in children. Importantly, our fundamental project will contribute to Russia’s National Priority of Quality Education – because early identification is critical for providing cognitively gifted students with well-timed quality education. The Russian education system is arguably one of the best in the world and our ultimate goal is to create a Russian center of excellence that creates research-based knowledge for identifying and supporting the needs of cognitively gifted children. This project can serve as the basis for a longitudinal study that will provide a follow-up for these cognitively gifted students in later years. In our efforts to make this possible we already collaborate with national and international educators, researchers and clinicians and will make our research finding publicly accessible.
We anticipate that we will have three main sets of results from the (1) Screening, (2) Profiling, and (3) fMRI Studies. First, during the Screening Study we will test a large number of school-aged children with a battery of mental-attentional capacity measures and ultrasound. Results from mental-attentional capacity measures will identify the groups of cognitively gifted children and control children to be studied further. This step will have significant practical and theoretical impact. Practically it will: (a) contribute to rigorous methodological practices for early detection of gifted children, and (b) establish indices of cerebrovascular hemodynamics and their relation to mental-attentional capacity in children, which will have important social significance for educators, parents and clinicians. Theoretically, the Screening Study will inform theories of cognitive development and giftedness on screening methods of early detection of advanced cognitive abilities. Second, the Profiling Study will evaluate in detail executive functions (i.e., inhibition, shifting, updating), intelligence, motivation and strategy use in cognitively gifted children compared to their same-age peers. This will be the first study worldwide to examine cognitively gifted children with eye tracking. The Profiling Study will provide important theoretical contributions on the cognitive and socio-emotional profile of gifted children. Practically, knowledge from this study will be beneficial for parents, educators, psychologists and policy makers (e.g., stakeholders of the sochisirius program) who aim to constructively support and further the development of gifted children. Specifically, public schools can use a computerized battery of mental-attentional capacity measures that would not only indicate whether the competence level of the child is significantly above average but also it would indicate the competence level the child is performing. For instance, if a 7-8 year old, who theoretically should be able to hold and manipulate 3 items in mind, scores a 4 or a 5, then we can conclude that this child has a competence level of 9-10 (scoring at 4) or 11-12 (scoring at 6) year old. Such knowledge can help with better planning the education of these students; one method may be specialized course work for individual students and another may be to offer the student to advance to the next grade. Either method would help cognitively gifted students develop more effectively. Lastly, the fMRI study will be the first worldwide to examine brain correlates of cognitively gifted children aged 9-10 years on a subset of cognitively gifted and control children. Scientifically and theoretically, the fMRI will contribute new insight to our understanding of giftedness at an early age and inform theories of giftedness and cognitive development. Practically, findings will contribute to establishing methodology for creating neurocognitive profiles for gifted children. This is important because only when we properly identify a child’s cognitive competence level can we attempt to provide child-driven targeted education. Overall, we highlight the social significance of this work, outside the academic sphere. It is fundamental for parents, educators, and clinicians to have access to new research findings. Thus, in addition to publishing this work to open-access peer-reviewed scientific journals, we aim is to make knowledge gained easily accessible to the community via conference presentations, invited talks, and through appropriate websites. Examples include: Scientific Journals: Developmental Science (Impact Factor: 3.982) Child Development (Impact Factor: 4.235) Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 4.570) Cerebral Cortex: (Impact Factor: 8.285) NeuroImage: (Impact Factor: 5.463) Human Brain Mapping: (Impact Factor: 4.962) Conferences: Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD: http://www.srcd.org/) Meeting of the Cognitive Development Society (https://cogdevsoc.org/) Meeting of National Association for Gifted Children (https://www.nagc.org/) Meeting of Cognitive Science (http://cogconf.ru/default.aspx?l=r) Meeting of Virtual Laboratory of Cognitive Science (http://virtualcoglab.ru/index.html)
Annotation of the results obtained in 2019
Cognitive abilities correspond to mental actions we take to solve problems and acquire knowledge in everyday life. Cognitive processes improve throughout childhood and adolescence and they are highly linked to scholastic achievement, and professional success. Although, typically developing children undergo several stages of cognitive development, they may do so at different rates. Research shows that a small percentage of children 1-10% significantly outperform their same age peers, often called cognitively gifted children. Our project examines neurocognitive correlates associated with high cognitive performance. Learning from children who are over-performers will help us improve our methods of assessing and teaching children in the future. Mental-attentional capacity in a core cognitive ability that enables us to maintain and manipulate information in mind. It is a limited resource that has been quantified by researchers, who explain that children entering school at age 7 have a mental-attentional capacity of 3 units and by the time they graduate this amount reaches 7 units, which is the same number of mental representations adults can process as well. Classic and contemporary measures of mental-attentional capacity in conjunction with cutting edge physiological and neuroimaging technologies such as ultrasound, eye-tracking and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We consider aspects of motivation and school engagement. We have worked with many schools in Moscow, and we are grateful to Principals, Schools Psychologists and Educators for their valuable contribution to our research. We are particularly grateful to parents and all the children who participated and supported our search for knowledge. Participation in our study is absolutely voluntary for schools, educators, parents and children. This year children completed tasks of mental-attentional capacity, school engagement and participated in sessions that involved ultrasound, eye-tracking and functional MRI. Behavioral tasks of mental-attentional capacity are presented to children like cognitive games with shapes, colours and numbers. In the shapes game, for example, children are asked to find point of total intersection among different shapes. To increase difficulty we change the number of shapes from 2 to 8 shapes. The colour game is computerized and children are asked to remember the relevant colours on the figure and indicate if the following figure has the same or different colours. To increase difficulty in this game we increase the number of relevant colours. The number game is similar to the colour game, but instead of relevant colours we used relevant numbers (i.e., we ask the children to ignore some numbers). Children with mental-attentional capacity scores 2 units or higher than theoretically expected for their age, were identified as over-performers. A school engagement scale was developed and psychometrically validated it in Russian. This assessment scale is presented to the children as a questionnaire where they have to answer questions related to how emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally they are engaged at their school. This scale and supporting documentation is freely available here: https://social.hse.ru/neuropsy/surveys Eye-tracking is a non-invasive method used to measure eye movements. Eye-movement parameters include saccades, fixations, blinks and pupil dilation. Likely one of the most objective indicators of attention, we examined eye-movements while children and adults played cognitive games with colors. Ultrasound is a non-invasive method that uses echoes to generate pictures of internal parts of the body. We used blood flow indices recorded from the head and neck of children and related these findings to behavioral scores (e.g., school engagement and mental-attentional capacity). MRI and functional MRI (fMRI) are a non-invasive neuroimaging methods that use strong magnetic fields, radio waves and magnetic field gradients to produce high resolution images related to anatomy and function in the brain. We used MRI and fMRI to evaluate brain responses while children and adults played the color games. Using behavioral measures of mental attentional capacity we verified theoretical predictions and replicated empirical findings that show that mental attentional capacity increases gradually as a function of age. Means obtain from Russian children are comparable to those reported from other countries: North America, South America, Europe and Australia. Important for our work was that with our over-performance criterion we were able to obtain rates of over-performance 4-9% with the color game and 1-4% with the number game; both these measures were computerized. The rate of over-performance was much higher for the shapes game (~25%), which suggest that a stricter criterion may be needed. We compared school engagement in children who over-performed and children who performed normally for their age (i.e., control group). Over-performers are overall more engaged in schools. We found that although emotional components is the stronger indicator of school engagement when all the children are considered together, between group analyses comparing over-performing and normally-performing children showed significant differences in behavioral and cognitive components, but not the emotional component. This suggest that over-performing children take actions (i.e., behavioral) and make thoughts (i.e., cognitive) that help them be more engaged in school. Also we compared blood flow indices measured using ultrasound in children who over-performed and children who performed normally for their age (i.e., control group). Cognitively over-performing children showed higher blood flow volume in both hemispheres in general, however statistical analyses showed significant difference between over-performing and normally-performing children only in the left hemisphere, in global blood flow scores, in scores from the vertebral artery, and scores from the internal carotid artery. To better understand the observed patterns we will conduct further analyses. Our research also shows that eye-movements are important for decision making and successful cognitive performance. Specifically, we show significant effects of difficulty on the number of fixations and the duration of fixations as cognitive load increases. This effect is observable in both children and adults. Critically when we vary the context of the tasks to include more interference, significant effects are observed in terms of accuracy and reaction time, but not in eye-movements. These results suggest that performance effects related to interference may rely on factors other than eye-movements, such as executive control (i.e., strategy use), whereas difficulty levels express linear demands on eye-movements. MRI also show a strong relation between behavioral performance and brain activity. Specifically, preliminary analyses show that increases in difficulty (i.e., more relevant colors need to be processes) correspond to complex modulation activity in brain areas such as the parietal, cingulate and prefrontal cortices, while performance is maintained. Patterns of brain activity show increase variability for higher levels of difficulty, which suggest that region of interest analyses may help us better understand these findings. Results associated with this project have been presented to local and international conferences, published in peer-reviewed Russian and international journals and have been featured in popular public websites. It is also very rewarding for us to disseminate our findings in schools and educational public seminars. Concluding, we are pleased with the progress of our project and the contributions we made to the literature. We will continue our research on better understanding neurocognitive abilities across development. Again, we take the opportunity to thank the children who participated in our studies, their parents, teachers, psychologists and Principals at their schools More details for parents and educators can be found here: https://social.hse.ru/neuropsy
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2. Charkhabi M., Khalezov E., Kotova T., S Baker J., Dutheil F., Arsalidou M. School engagement of children in early grades: Psychometric, and gender comparisons. PloS one, 14(11) (year - 2019).
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Annotation of the results obtained in 2017
Parents and educators experience first hand remarkable improvements in their children’s cognitive abilities over the school age years. Most children start school knowing simple number facts and letters and finish school being able to solve complex math problems and read and write stories. The potential of the brain to learn and mature over a period of several years is fascinating. Classic psychologists have devised many ways to measure academic competences and intelligence; however, these tests are often culturally biased, require domain specific training or can be administered only to older children. One way to measure cognitive competence in a culture-fair manner that does not require extensive prior training and can be administer to younger children is by way of parametric measures of mental-attentional capacity. Mental-attention corresponds to the amount of information one can hold and manipulate in mind. This is a limited resource that gradually increases with age. Parametric measures of mental-attentional capacity, which we often call cognitive games, use simple concepts such as colours, shapes and numbers, to generate multiple levels of difficulty. Importantly, the rules of these games remain constant (e.g., “are the colours the same or different”) across all levels of difficulty. For example, the number of colours can change from 1 to 6 relevant colours and a child has to indicate whether the colours are the same or different regardless of the number of colours. By keeping the concepts and the rules simple we can manipulate the complexity of the task by changing the amount of information to be processed. On average, typically developing children experience a unit increase in their mental attentional capacity every other year; starting from 3-4 years with 1 unit, 5-6 years 2 units, 7-8 years 3 units, 9-10 years 4 units, 11-12 years 5 units, 13-14 years 6 units and finishing with 7 units at age 15-16 years. Seven units is also the mental-attentional capacity limit for adults. Critically, a small percentage of children, about 5%, significantly outperform their peers to show outstanding performance. A purpose of our research is to find improved methods of identifying advanced cognitive competence in younger children and better understand the neurocognitive foundations of their performance. Over the past year, the Institutional Review Board of HSE has approved all our methods. Participation in our study is absolutely voluntary. To work with children we first contact the School Principals. When Principals evaluate the project and are interested in our research we talk to teachers and parents; some more information for parents can be found here (https://social.hse.ru/psy/news/212469995.html). Interested parents are asked to provide written consent form. Only children whose parents provide written consent form are asked to participate in our study. We are collecting data in several schools in Moscow and are very grateful to all Principals, School Psychologists, Educators, Parents and children who help us in this journey for knowledge. We have tested children with measures of mental attentional capacity and ultrasound. Preliminary data show that on average children’s performance follows theoretically predicted levels, such that children in grade 2 who are 7-8 years old can successfully hold and manipulate 3 units for information in mind, whereas children in grade 4, who are 9-10 years old can successfully hold and manipulate 4 units of information in mind. Ultrasound is a non-invasive technique that produces pictures of the inside of the body using sound waves. We use ultrasound to measure parameters related to blood vessels that supply the with blood different parts of the brain. For example, we measure how fast the blood in flowing in vessels in the left and right hemispheres in the brain. Our preliminary results show that there are differences in blood velocity in vessels that supply the left and right hemispheres in children ages 7 to 10 years. We will continue to analyze our data to better understand individual differences related to advanced cognitive performance. We are interested in understanding both cognitive and emotional processes associated with brain maturation. To better understand these abilities we performed a series of meta-analyses of previously published functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies. For example, we examined which brain areas are associated with processing numbers and solving mathematical problems in children and adults. We also examined brain areas associated with cognitive phenomena and complex decision making in adults that may help us better understand how these processes develop in children. Again, our research would not be possible without the generous support of Principals, Educators, Parents and children in our participating Schools. Next year we will continue to recruit more Schools in Moscow and other regions in Russia. If you are a Principal and are interested for your school to participate please feel free to contact us directly. For more information about our team please visit: https://www.hse.ru/staff/Arsalidou#__tab1
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7. Liashenko A., Khalezov E., Arsalidou M. Methods for Identifying Cognitively Gifted Children Psychology. Journal of Higher School of Economics, 14 (2), pp. 207-218 (year - 2017).
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Annotation of the results obtained in 2018
Cognitive competence is highly related to academic performance and professional success. Our world is changing rabidly and future workforce requirements are not fully understood. Experts agree that future labor market would have a high demand in majors associated with science and technology. Therefore, it is imperative that we improve our methods of assessing children’s cognitive abilities to better inform educational practices. Our project examines neurocognitive correlates related with cognitive competence. To assess cognitive competence we use classic and computerized measures of mental-attentional capacity. Mental-attentional capacity corresponds to the number of information a child can hold and manipulate in mind (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKsLGg1HUqc). Eye-movements are likely one of the most objective measures of where attention is applied and we use it to understand strategies of problem solving. Problem solving potential relies on biological brain maturation and motivational level related to behavioral, cognitive and emotional factors. A purpose of our research is to find relations among multiple components associated with improved cognitive performance. Over the past year we have worked with eleven schools in Moscow. We are grateful to all Principals, School Psychologists and Educators for supporting our search to knowledge. Most importantly, we are thankful to the parents and all the children who participate in our study. Participation in our study is absolutely voluntary. Children have completed assessments using mental-attentional capacity measures, school engagement, eye-tracking and ultrasound. Mental-attentional capacity measures are presented as cognitive games to the children and assess the number of items children can hold and process in their mind. A school engagement scale we developed evaluates motivation and the degree the child is invested in learning using cognitive, behavioral and emotional components. Eye-tracking, keeps track of gaze direction and fixations while a child is completing a cognitive game on the computer. Ultrasound is a non-invasive technique that produces pictures of the inside of the body using sound waves. Behavioral scores show that performance on mental-attentional capacity closely follows the theoretically developmental predictions, and empirical data obtained in many countries, verifying the culture fairness of the measures and the task’s suitability of use in Russia. Children who score two or more units above their expected theoretical average for their age group are considered as outstanding over-performers. About 2-7% of children obtain these high scores on computerized tasks. These proportion rates are similar to international reported rates (~5%) of cognitively gifted children. Our results suggest that cognitively gifted children may have a more complex repertoire of cognitive strategy such that they can speed up their performance when the task is within their mental attentional capacity or slow down their performance to maintain high accuracy. A better understanding of strategy use in gifted children will help us improve educational approaches. We have applied advanced algorithms with machine learning models to examine whether we can predict the age of the child using hemodynamic responses measured using ultrasound (i.e., vessel diameter and blood velocity). Results show that our models can predict the age of the child within about 10 months. Notably, the results remain the same when we examine boys and girls separately. Machine learning approaches were also used to predict a child’s using mental-attentional capacity scores and results also show estimated predictions within about 10 months. This finding is an empirical demonstration of theoretical expectations that suggest that on average a child’s mental–attentional capacity scores increase by one unit every other year. Practically, mental-attentional capacity scores can be used to assess school readiness and individually targeted learning interventions that can benefit children. Eye-tracking has been used to examine problem solving strategies. We have validated our eye-tracking protocol with adult participants and compared their performance with children. Results show that children make approximately 30% more fixations than adults when problem solving. Interestingly, for each difficulty level, children generate a similar number of fixations regardless of interfering features, whereas adults make fewer fixations when the task has less interfering features. This suggests that adults may have different strategies depending on the task. Also, increased number of fixations may indicate that children favor a visual-spatial strategy, whereas adults favor a verbal strategy. Motivation and school engagement was measured with an adapted scale, which was psychometrically validated. This scale compares and contrasts the factors related with the interest and investment of a child to learn and includes behavioral, cognitive and emotional components. Results show that emotional engagement is the strongest component of this scale, however, children who show high performance rate themselves higher on behavioral and cognitive components compared to their same age peers. We also have preliminary data on a teacher scale that evaluates the degree of a child’s school engagement. Early findings suggest that teachers have a good understanding of the children’s school engagement in their classroom, particularly in the rating associated with the children’s emotional component. As we are interested in behavioral and brain correlates of cognitive and emotional indices we have performed a series functional magnetic resonance imaging meta-analyses studies. For example, we examined which brain areas associated with a popular working memory measures in children and tasks related with inhibition, the ability to stop a mental process with or without intention in adults. Moreover, we examine brain areas associated with dynamic communication of facial expressions that help us understand links between emotion and cognition. Again, our research would not be possible without the generous support of Principals, Psychologists, Educators, Parents and children at our participating schools. Next year we will continue behavioural, ultrasound and eye tracking testing in Schools and will begin a functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging (fMRI) study to examine brain correlates of mental-attentional capacity in children. Participants of the fMRI study will receive anatomical images of their brain. More details for parents and educators can be found here: https://social.hse.ru/neuropsy/
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